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Rawls and the Forgotten Figure of the Most Advantaged: In Defense of Reasonable Envy toward the Superrich

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This article aims to correct the widespread imbalance in contemporary liberal thought, which makes explicit appeal to the “least advantaged” without parallel attention to the “most advantaged” as a distinct group in need of regulatory attention. Rawls's influential theory of justice is perhaps the paradigmatic instance of this imbalance, but I show how a Rawlsian framework nonetheless provides three justifications for why implementers of liberal justice—above all, legislators—should regulate the economic prospects of a polity's richest citizens: as a heuristic device for ensuring that a system of inequalities not reach a level at which inequalities cease being mutually advantageous, as protection against excessive inequalities threatening civic liberty, and as redress for a liberal society's inability to fully realize fair equality of opportunity with regard to education and politics. Against the objection that such arguments amount to a defense of envy, insofar as they support policies that in certain instances impose economic costs on the most advantaged with negative or neutral economic impact on the rest of society, I attend to Rawls's often overlooked distinction between irrational and reasonable forms of envy, showing that any envy involved in the proposed regulation of the most advantaged falls within this latter category.


Corresponding author

Jeffrey Edward Green is the Janice and Julian Bers Assistant Professor in the Social Sciences, University of Pennsylvania. 208 S. 37th Street, Philadelphia, PA, 19104 (


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